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Jonathan Fournel: ‘Competitions are so excruciating’

Jonathan Fournel: "In chamber music I can work on my finesses as a storyteller."

Each week we shine our spotlight on young talent. Jonathan Fournel, for example, the Queen Elisabeth Competition winner who proves he's ready to shake that title off and make his own mark.

Any classical music lover knows the Queen Elisabeth Competition is the ideal opportunity to spot young and upcoming talent. It's the stage on which household names like Vladimir Ashkenazy, Abdel Rahman El Bacha, Pierre-Alain Volondat or Boris Giltburg launched their impressive careers. At the same time, any classical music lover knows that a first prize in the prestigious piano competition is not a guarantee for success. Many artists managed to convince the jury but failed to make a mark beyond the long red table.

Nevertheless, all eyes were on the 28-year-old Jonathan Fournel last May. He was the last pianist to perform in a contest curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic. In a deadly empty Henry Le Boeuf Hall, with thousands of eyes undoubtedly only half-watching from a laptop or a tablet screen. But no-one was half-watching when Fournel started his dazzling rendition of Brahms' Piano Concerto No.2. A few measures in, and you were glued to the screen. Fournel managed to turn a distanced video rendition into an immersive musical experience.

It was immediately clear: this was the winner you were watching. Not only did he take home the jury prize, but he also won the audience awards from both Klara and Musiq3. A clean sweep. “That night it felt like someone added my name to the list of winners on Wikipedia just for fun,” Fournel told us. “It was surreal. A once in a lifetime experience.”

Back to Brahms
The question on everyone's mind now: can Fournel surpass his status of “winner of the concours” and become a visionary artist in his own right? Many musicians claim that the year after a victory is the toughest to get engagements. Once the title wears off and the dust from the innumerable laureate concerts settles, will they remember your name, or was it all about the prize?

Fournel seems to have managed those expectations and challenges rather well. For one, his win in Brussels surely wasn't a lucky shot. Before 2021, he was already crowned leader of the pack in the Glasgow and the Viotti International Music Competitions “but I'm entirely done with competitions. No way I'm doing that again, it's so excruciating!” Just now, when his engagements might be beginning to dry up, now that he's travelled the world as the concours winner, he released his debut album on the Alpha Classics label.

On his album Fournel joins forces with his competition companion Johannes Brahms once more. Not in the exuberant concerto form that won him first prize, but in a gentle return to solo, chamber music. “When studying at the Chapelle Musicale in Waterloo, I had the opportunity to play loads and loads of chamber music. For me it's the form where you share the music most intimately. Where I can work on my finesses as a storyteller.” What better place to come tell that story, and shake the unavoidable yoke of the competition, than the concert hall that kickstarted it all? Where Fournel is long overdue for a concert packed to the rafters.

JONATHAN FOURNEL
4/12, 20.00, Bozar, www.bozar.be

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